Outrage over prison sentence given to Syriac priest in Turkey

The Syriac community is outraged by the sentence of more than two years in prison for Syriac Orthodox priest Sefer "Aho" Bileçen. The decision is a blow to the protection of minorities and vulnerable groups, warns the ESU.

The Union of Syriacs in Europe (ESU) has called on the Turkish judiciary to revise the verdict against Syrian Orthodox priest Sefer "Aho" Bileçen. The judicial decision is a disappointment for the Syriacs and represents a "blow to democratic principles and human rights and the protection of minorities and vulnerable groups," the umbrella organization said in a statement.

The priest of the Syriac Orthodox monastery of Mor Yakub (also known as the "Church of Saint Jacob of Nisibis") in Tur Abdin, Abbot Aho, was sentenced on Wednesday by a Turkish court in Mardin to two years and one month in prison. He is accused of supporting a terrorist organization - meaning the PKK. The conviction of the abbot, who is also the only monk of the monastery in the district of Nusaybin, stems from the accusation that he gave bread and water to guerrilla fighters in 2018.

During the trial, Bileçen, who was initially charged with membership of a terrorist organization, did not deny providing assistance. However, this had no political background, but corresponded to his religious conviction, he said; "I give food to everyone who comes to my door - whoever he is." The priest has announced that he will appeal against the decision. He remains free until further notice and will continue to live and work in the monastery.

"The Syriac monasteries of Turabdin, in addition to their high cultural and religious importance, are also of great interest to the Syriac people in terms of tourism. Monasteries and churches are open to all population groups without restriction of religion and belief. Priest Aho is not only 'guardian' of the monastery, but also dedicated servant to humanity. We expect our community and the Christian world to support Aho. Also, we believe international human and minority rights organizations will stand by him,” said the ESU.

A small Syriac Orthodox minority of not even 2,500 members of the Christian faith still lives in Tur Abdin. For years, Bileçen has been trying to revitalize the Mor Yakub monastery, which was reopened there in 2013, and is supported in this endeavor by, among others, the Austrian Linz-based aid organization "Initiative Christlicher Orient" (ICO). He also wants to establish a monastery school. The abbot had been detained on January 8, 2020 and jailed a day later. The charges against him were based on the testimony of a key witness and former guerrilla fighter, who hoped to reduce his sentence. After five days in pre-trial detention, the competent court ordered the priest's release on reporting conditions.